What drives consumers’ liking and disliking of whole wheat breads? It’s not just flavor, according to a proprietary multiyear study announced by Horizon Milling, Wayzata, MN.

The company surveyed 1,400 consumers and used a trained sensory panel at North Carolina State University to better understand the attitudes voiced. The survey revealed that there’s plenty of room to make improvements and earn market gains in this category.

“With pressure coming from consumers, government and public health organizations to improve the nutritional value of foods, we believe there are opportunities for growth around whole wheat,” said Megan Speas, Horizon’s director of marketing. “By understanding why consumers like, and dislike, whole wheat bread, we can help our customers optimize how they develop and innovate using various whole wheat flours.”

From its large consumer survey, the company selected 360 adults and 170 children in grades K though 12 to participate in a taste test of 25 different whole wheat breads. They rated them for overall liking, texture, appearance and purchase intent. Some breads were very well liked; others less so.

The university sensory panel then quantified the breads according to taste, flavor, texture, appearance and aroma. These scales helped Horizon characterize — or fingerprint — the breads to provide insight into how various whole wheat flours contribute to the finished products’ sensory characteristics.

Consumers fell into unique segments defined by demographics, behaviors and attitudes toward breads. “Perhaps the greatest divide occurred between adults and children,” said Elizabeth Uriyo, PhD, Horizon’s vice-president of R&D. “We saw that kids and adults have very different opinions about what makes a great whole wheat bread. Characteristics that drove liking for adults often drove disliking for children.”

The sensory quantification helped Horizon determine the role played by various flour qualities. “We learned that particle size doesn’t have an impact on the liking of finished products,” Dr. Uriyo said. “In other words, a finer particle size didn’t correlate to higher overall liking scores.”

Aspects that drove preferences varied greatly among segments, but a few truths were found. On the taste scale, when bitterness is reduced, liking is increased. When sweetness and umami notes increased, so did liking.

Horizon developed an online market simulator tool based on this proprietary research. It was designed to act as a modeling tool to predict the impact that changes to bread characteristics will have on consumer liking. For example, will a topping of flaked grains improve liking? And how will changes affect the price consumers are willing to pay?

“Now that we have started to pinpoint the drivers of liking in whole wheat bread, we believe these insights can help our customers develop whole wheat products with the sensory characteristics that delight consumers’ palates,” Dr. Uriyo said.

Horizon Milling is a joint venture between CHS, Inc., and Cargill, Inc.